D.6. Religious Iconography:


When we look more closely at the actual buildings for which the Kashan potters were making their tiles, some very interesting issues are raised. Firstly, there is a very strong funerary association with lustre decoration: of the 21 securely recorded buildings from which the tiles come, 18 are tombs, 2 are mosques, and 1 is a shrine. The shrine (of Imam Ali in Kashan; see the interesting story about its foundation, below) acted as a tomb in that it became a place of veneration and pilgrimage, and the mosque of Ali in Quhrud bears inscriptions that show it was also regarded as a commemmorative building as well as mosque. Thus the overwhelming majority of the buildings known to have been decorated with lustre tile from Kashan had funerary functions.

Furthermore, in Qom, Mashhad, Baku, and Natanz, the tomb-chambers are decorated with lustre tiles, but not the contemporary mosques; the 4 mihrabs whose provenance is unknown, can be identified through their inscriptions as tombstones.

Not only are buildings funerary in function, but all except for two are Shi’i: the other two (in Baku and Sarvistan) are tombs of Sufi masters who are known to have been sympathetic to the Shi’is. This Islamic sect was persecuted under the Saljuqs who were strong Sunni Muslims, but as we have seen in the historical introduction the Il-Khanids were more tolerant: Oljaytü converted to Shi’ism in 1310, in acknowledgement of the growing importance of this religious movement. Thus the Shi’is in the early C14th, which is the same time when the Kashan tilework industry was taking off, were able to consolidate their position in society and existed as substantial minorities in many towns.

Qom, Najaf, and Mashhad were the most imortant shrines, controlled by highly trained clergy, and Qom (where there was a shrine of Fatima, the sister of Imam Reza) was also the centre of Shi’i theological studies; Jurjan, Kashan and Veramin are all known to have been strong Shi’i centres; the tombs at Damghan and on Kharg island are for descendants of Shi’i Imams, and at Natanz an inscription on the tomb façade gives the Shi’i creed "Ali is Wali of Allah"; a number of tiles of unrecorded provenance also bear same creed. Only Baku, Sarvistan and Yazd are not known to have been Shi’i, but as mentioned above the Sufis tombs here are of mystics who held Shi’i sympathies.

Thus there seems to be a specificity about the function of lustre tile decoration which links it exclusively to a funerary context, which is furthermore exclusively Shi’i. Yet another interesting issue is raised by the iconography of the tiles. As we have seen, there is a predominance of secular inscriptions on these tiles, such as Persian quatrains and lines from epic verses which seemingly have no connection to the subjects depicted on the tile. Tiles with this kind of inscription, along with "secular" figural decorations, occur in religious buildings. They are found in Qom, Baku, Kashan, Quhrud, Damghan, and Kharg; in the latter two, only secular tiles are found.

Can we find, then, a religious interpretation for these "secular" tiles? This type of study has been done on some of the Kashani vessels, most notably by Ettinghausen and Guest (1961): the dish by Shams al-Din al-Hasani had previously been thought to represent the Persian hero Khusrau first spying his beloved Shirin while she bathed. Their re-evaluation of the iconography concluded that this dish may represent a Sufi metaphor: the fish, symbolising the mystic or prophet, in water which stands for the infinite Divine Grace (that thirst which can never be quenched) together represent the union of the mystic with God; the woman in the water is the earthly manifestation of Divine Beauty, which the seated youth contemplates in his mystic sleep of quest, while rejecting all earthly attachments, represented by the horse and attendants.

The Sufi connection can be pursued on the tiles also, and we have seen above that two of the tombs to be so specifically decorated with lustre tiles are those of Sufi masters known to have Shi’i sympathies. This is not unusual for at this period the mystic Sufi movement was gaining adherents, and they were adopting many Shi’i beliefs (see the historical introduction on the early Saljuq period). To the mystics, allegory was the most important way in which they communicated to their disciples the relationship of the mystic with God: in particular, they used the allegory of human love and drunkenness to symbolise divine love and spiritual intoxication; separation from or ill-treatment by the beloved, which as we have seen was a predominant theme on the quatrains of Kashan tiles and dishes, symbolised the mystic’s separation from God; lastly, animal stories were used to convey moral tales.

Perhaps we can now see that the inscriptions which surround most products of the Kashan potteries were actually not totally unrelated to their iconographic subjects, but were instead suggesting a deeper mystical interpretation, which fits well with the religious situation of the period and the region. It must be remembered, however, that the presence of Takht-i Sulaiman in the archaeological record tells us that without doubt these tiles were used in secular contexts also, and in form are indistinguishable from religious tiles. This is a specific commission from an Il-Khanid ruler, however, who cannot be expected to view the religious iconography of the Kashan lustre tiles in the same way as the Shi’i potters and patrons of the tombs and mosques.

We may briefly consider questions of distribution, looking at Kashan pots in a wider Shi’i context. One reason why there was so much confusion about the place of production of these ceramics is that they have been found in so many places, especially in and around Iran, but also further afield. Egypt? Where else? What can we draw from this pattern? Shi’i sympathies or just trade?

As we know, many of the tiles are individually dated as well as signed: this attention to dating is unusual on tiles which are not foundation tiles. In fact many of them, and especially the early ones, are dated to the month Muharram. The dating can be quite specific: one potter takes the trouble to mention that he completed his pot/tile during the night between the – and – of - . It could be that the presence of dating in a seemingly arbitrary manner is merely a device to fill left-over space in the design. However, the end of Muharram is an important time for the Shi’is, when they recall the battle of Karbala and the death of Ali (??!) with feasts and recitations. If many of the tiles that the Kashan potters produced were intended for Shi’i funerary buildings, perhaps it was seen as appropriate to dedicate a suitably sacred part of the year to their production. Many of the tiles are not dated Muharram or other important Shi’i months, though further investigation in to this question may repay some interesting answers.

Lastly, an interesting and amusing story is provided by the inscription on a unique tile in the museum in Sèvres: it is circular with a raised border which does not go completely around the circumference of the tile. It is a foundation plaque with a long text explaining the curious circumstances surrounding the foundation of the shrine of Imam Ali in Kashan. At dawn on Thursday 10 February 1312 (1 Shawwal 711), Sayyid Fakhr al-Din Hasan Tabari dreamt that he was in a garden just outside one of Kashan’s gateways, and saw there a large group of people standing around a tent; outside were tethered a horse and camel. A beautiful young man dressed in Arab clothes invited him into the tent, and there inside was sitting an awe-inspiring warrior whose "bravery and majesty made the earth to move and the light from whose blessed face reached the sky". This was Imam Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law, and he indicated that he was going to India to convert the heathen. He wished for a magnificent shrine to be built as a place of pilgrimage for those who could not travel all the way to India. When Sayyid Fakhr al-Din awoke, he went to the garden, and discovered the footprints of the horse and camel where the tent had been in the dream. The Imam appeared to others and eventually instructed Haidar Faris to construct the monument: this he did, and the foundation tile was made in the shape of a horse-shoe to represent the size of the hoof-print of the Imam’s horse.

top of the page   top of the page


Back || Contents || Next